Chats to PS about AMA superbike, Pops, GS 1000S, the Suzuka 8-hours, and his near-death 1985 crash
Wes Cooley and Pops Yoshimura were an AMA Superbike and Suzuki 8-hour winning machine. Their heyday was when brutal one-litre fours ruled the planet. And this is how it was
EVERY LIFE has a beginning, a middle (if you’re lucky) and an end – that’s for certain.wes Cooley’s had one hell of a middle, and one hopes the end is still a long way away.
The two times ama (American Motorcyclist Association) Superbike Champ and twice winner of the Suzuka 8-hour might have met his maker at Sears Point Raceway, Sonoma, California in 1985.A huge crash left him in a coma for 12 days. He broke five vertebrae, both femurs, and battered his lungs and kidneys to a life-threatening extent. “The nurses said I should have been dead,” says wes. “And I don’t recall a thing about it – the body’s way of saying it doesn’t want to remember. But I’m a dirty, old, mean sonofabitch. I’m always gonna make it.”
After an abortive attempt at a comeback in 1987,Wester Steven Cooley faded into an unhappy, anonymous existence before getting his life together again and reviving the medical training he abandoned to go big-time racing in 1976. Now after a visit to this year’s ama Mid-ohio vintage meeting as Grand Marshal, and after a few demo laps on his title-winning Yoshimura Suzuki GS1000, this giant of superbikes is back at the places he’s loved since he was a kid. Not racing, but simply back on the scene.and in a good place. Just being wes Cooley again.
“I loved motorcycles from the get-go,” he says. His dad was a handy rider (both ‘pavement’ and dirt) as well as a motocross promoter when the sport went huge in the States in the early ’70s. wes and his mates would happily help out as ‘corner workers’ at MX tracks Carlsbad and Saddleback Park, and on tarmac at Riverside and willow Springs.wes rode a step-thru Suzuki 80, then a Hodaka ace 90, until he was offered a go on a Greeves Silverstone at willow Springs aged 15.Then came his own tz250 and a first novice win in the ama National series in 1973.A Don vesco tuned tz750 followed but wes never really gelled with it. “Me and my father worked on it with Donny.and I’m not a good mechanic. Two-strokes were always a bit on/off for me, the four-strokes were nice and smooth.and when I went with Pops [Yoshimura] he looked after the lot. Pops really made things work for me.”
Wes began a working relationship with Pops and Fujio yoshimura in 1977 that was to last four years and produce those two superbike titles in the crucible that was ama series at the time. Be mindful his chief rivals for those titles in 1979 and 1980 were Eddie Lawson and Freddie Spencer. Cooley whupped them and earned those titles the hard way.
Wes was and is a diabetic. He let on to Pops and Fujio but no one else. It meant trying to manage a disease that affects strength and brain function. “If my blood/sugar was on the low side at 120 [mg/dl] I couldn’t even see the damned track and I had no strength, no endurance,” he says. “That’s why I had my motorhome (when motorhomes were a rarity) so I could avoid eating trackside hotdogs and hamburgers. I had to be really careful what I ate to control the disease.at the 1981 Suzuka 8-hour they had to fill me up with sugar my blood/sugar was so low.”
So, aside from regularly dusting two soon-to-be world 500cc Champions, wes was covertly dealing with a condition that could have killed him. Like he said: dirty, old, mean sonofabitch – held in high regard by his rivals, and most significantly by Pops. He started with a cash-strapped yo shim ur a team te stingy von Duhamel’s Kawasakis at willow Springs. Duhamel lived in Quebec, Canada so it was easier and cheaper to get local hotshot wes to evaluate things. Cooley impressed Pops and Fujio to the extent they put him on a yoshimura Kawasaki Z1000 for 1977. He finished sixth
overall. “In those days it was basically me, Steve Mclaughlin, Keith Code and Reg Pridmore,” says Wes. “We were all brand new.” AMA superbike would soon become huge andwes one of its most gifted, and rightly celebrated, exponents.
“Pops always gave the impression he couldn’t speak any English,” sayswes. “He’d make those kind of groaning sounds and say very little, like you knew he knew what was going on. It wasn’t until I was at Yoshimura’s base in North Hollywood that I found out he spoke English. Fujio said, ‘Pops wants to have a word with you in his office’ and so I went up to see him and he started speaking to me, so all that time he’d been sizing me up and watching and waiting. It was a real shock to me, but that was when the whole Yoshimura Suzuki thing came together and he asked me to ride at the Suzuka 8-hour.” His team-mate was Mike Baldwin who was getting great results on a Moto Guzzi in the States.
They won the 1978 race, but it was far from easy. “The Suzuki factory would do anything for Pops,” sayswes. “This was the first 8-hour which had grown from a 6-hour and it was getting to be a big-time race in Japan.” It was in Honda’s backyard and Soichiro Honda was dead-set on making it his show. Honda fielded two factory RCB1000 endurance machines with Jean-claude Chemarin and Christian Léon on one with Charliewilliams and Stanwoods on the other.they also had another 10 (yes, that’s ten) factory supported teams.
Pops’ experience of the Z1 leant itself readily to the GS1000. Suzuki took care of the running gear, while Pops worked his magic on the engine. He hand-ported and hand-ground the cams.they developed a two-ring piston and ran Keihin CR31S. But the engine occasionally broke valve springs on the dyno. Not great for an 8-hour engine.
But the biggest problem was the clutch. “Suzuki would happily make design changes – but only for Pops,” sayswes. “We’d go three or four laps and the clutch would fail. For days we’d try different things but it was only the day before the race we put in a clutch that could go the distance.”the stock GS damping springs in the basket were too weak and the rivets holding the basket to the primary gear would shear as they became coil-bound. Stronger springs were the last-ditch solution.
But the win, when it came, putyoshimura firmly on the map.and made Cooley a superstar in Japan. A front wheel spindle clamp bolt sheared at a
“POPS COULD TELL WHAT A BIKE NEEDED FROM THE SOUND. POPS REALLY WAS THE BRAINS BEHIND IT”
pit-stop, the rear shock mounts fractured and after the race it was found a frame downtube was cracked too .those 700 miles were hard on a newly developed bike. RK chains had been worried about the 130bhp the GS produced too and made four special chains for the team – the first ever O-rings, no less. a sit-up-and-beg stock-looking machine had defeated Honda. this was big news and it made the 1979AMA series big news too.
And Cooley took it.the final race at Daytona was cancelled because of rain, and Wes, who was ahead on points anyway took the title with 58 points to Ron Pierce’s 55 and Freddie Spencer’s 51. “I was disappointed in the way it happened,” says Wes. “But I was comfortable with what I was doing and with Pops, and we all worked very well together. Pops really was the brains behind it all. He’d be standing on the straightaway with his hand cupped over an ear just listening to the bike. He really could tell what a bike needed from the sound. Our communication was spot-on. I’d come in and make noises to him about how the bike was behaving and he’d know what I meant. He’d hand file everything to get it right, slides, needles, you name it.and he always did the valves and heads himself.
“The whole team was a unit. I felt so bad if I crashed and the whole team would be up until four in the morning, or all night. But they’d always be there for breakfast at 6:30 come whatever. I think Pops and Rob Muzzy [Kawasaki] – they were the best.”
Things got a lot hotter in 1980. Honda came in TOAMA superbike racing.and they came in for wes Cooley too. “We were at Fuji testing and we went into town in the evening to try and get ourselves into trouble, came back late and Pops was at the bar drinking sake.and Pops never drank, so I asked what was happening and he said, ‘Honda’s in.the money’s going to get outrageous now.’ And sure, some of the team went to Honda, but I just told him: Pops you showed me the way and I’m not jumping.and anyway Kawasaki’s was a huge operation too”
There would be drama in the 1980 series. Wes prevailed, but only just. Graeme Crosby jetted in and won the Daytona opener, Eddie Lawson took the next round at alabama and it wasn’t until Charlotte, NC, that wes posted a win. Spencer won at Road atlanta, then again at Loudon New Hampshire.wes was
getting enough podiums to stay in contention but had to win the final two rounds. He triumphed at Roadatlanta, but by the time the final race at Daytona loomed Lawson only had to finish 17th to take the title. But his Kawasaki broke. His team switched Lawson’s numbers onto team-mate Davidaldana’s machine – but got caught – and excluded.wes then beat Spencer to claim title number two.
So if Cooley could beat this quality field in the USA, why didn’t he try his hand in Grands Prix? “I never felt I’d done well in thetransatlantic series or when I went to Australia. I was married, had kids to look after, and I never felt there was anyone I could really learn from.a lot of guys made it and I could see how they had to adjust to it – a whole different game.anyway I was with Pops and he called me his brother.”
Loyalty, way more than lack of ambition, kept Cooley INAMA racing.the competition stayed as intense as ever and after finishing fourth overall in the 1982 seasonwes went to Kawasaki to joinwayne Rainey in what now became a 750cc class. He finished seventh in the standings, went back to Suzuki for 1984, then to Honda for 1985. He would not complete that season...
“Fred Merkel and me were running up front for the lead and then the race got red-flagged.we both had different compound tyres, mine lasted better, but Fred was able to change to a new set for the restart and I was just trying to hold onto the lead. Next thing I woke up in hospital.”
Wes Cooley returned to a track he knew backwards in 1987 for a 24-hour race at Willow Springs, where it all started. He said at the time of his comeback from that massive crash: “I’ve met with a good deal of resistance from the motorcycle industry, from my family, and though I appreciate their concern I’m the one who has to live insidewes Cooley’s body.and he’s addicted to racing. I’ve got to give it a try this weekend.” It didn’t work.
“I’d broken 27 bones in my career and that means I was on the ground way too much. I was stupid to think I could ride forever.”the Wes Cooley legend has endured perfectly intact though.the reception afforded to him at Mid-ohio this year was nothing less than this Hall Of Famer deserves. “I still love the smell of racing,” he says. Now 60 he feels more than qualified for his job as a rehab nurse, one with the most comprehensive first-hand experience available. “Oh yeah,” he laughs. “I know how to put that one together.” One dirty, old, mean sonofabitch.
Dream Team Suzuka ’79: Ron Pierce, Pops, Wes
’79 Bol d’or, riding with Ron Pierce: DNF. Engine trouble
Pops Yoshimura – hand tool genius at work
1981: he was never happy with his Transatlantic form
The style of a certified superbike grand master
1979 on the all-conquering Yoshi-gs1000s
Still kickin’ it at 60. Wes at Mid-ohio this year
Testing an F1 bike ’83. “Somewhere cold”
Always a fans’ favourite